23 July 2014

Gambia: Connecting the Gambia to the World of ICT

The Government of the Gambia under the leadership of His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Yahya AJJ Jammeh has connected the Gambia to the world of Information and Communication Technology (ICT). This is in line with his vision to provide the requisite infrastructure and create the enabling environment to ensure that ICT services are within the reach of each and every Gambian at anytime, anywhere and at affordable prices.

Under President Jammeh's government, ICT plays a crucial role in all sectors of the country's economy, boosting agricultural productivity and in providing the health sector with the necessary ICT infrastructure to improve delivery of services. In the same vein, the Ministry of Information Communication and Infrastructure (MOICI) is exploring ways and means of integrating the ICT needs of disadvantaged groups in society, while facilitating the development of ICT to support education delivery.

Recognizing the driving role that ICT plays in bringing about sustained economic growth and expansion of trade, MOICI is working in partnership with the private sector and donors within a liberalized and competitive market, one that offers consumer choice.

The Government of President Jammeh has brought lots of development in the ICT sector and from 1994 to date several ICT projects have been realized. Twenty years now, Gambians have witnessed the proliferation of not only radio stations and print media houses, but also the advent of the National Television (The Gambia Radio and Television Services) and GSM mobile operators, among a host of other projects. The Gambia's Internet Initiative Experience

In its quest to develop easy and cost effective information access, the United Nations Development Programme in 1997 launched the Internet Initiative for Africa (IIA), a three year regional project which aims among other things, to establish and enhance internet services and build capacity in Sub-Saharan African countries as a means of strengthening their economies and social development reforms. The Gambia became one of the first countries under the leadership of President Jammeh to join the bandwagon of the information superhighway under IIA, with the Gambia Telecommunications Company Limited (Gamtel), at the time,providing 50% of the US$1M needed for its implementation, on behalf of the government.

The Gambia's Internet Initiative became a reality in September 1998 with the launching of an Internet backbone and gateway. At the time, the Gambia boasts of a backbone covering the entire country on a 2 Megabytes per second platform, with nodes in 12 major cities and 512 kilobytes per second direct access to the rest of the world via Teleglobe, Canada. With Gamtel taking the leading role, it started the provision of Internet Services to the entire nation in October 1998. And Quantum Net became the first private company to offer Internet services in November 1998 with a high-speed connection to Internet backbone. Medical Research Council (MRC) follow suit by establishing a high-speed access in November 1998 and currently operates as a commercial Internet Service Provider (ISP). Prior to implementing IIA project in the Gambia in 1998, Gamtel was providing Internet Services via a low-speed X.25 access to CompuServe Online and Delphi in UK. Not only was this system slow and unreliable, it could only support 10 concurrent users of the total user base of 250 at the time. Barely a year after the launching of Internet services in 1998, by the president, His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr Yahya Jammeh, the user base grew up to over 1200 dial-up users. The Internet user base growth rate was expected to remain the same for the next year or two before gradually reaching market saturation. 14 years after, on December 19, 2012 up to 500 international policy-makers, regulators, operators and service providers from across the world converged in Banjul for the historical launching of the Africa Coast to Europe Submarine Cable (ACE). The ACE Consortium, which is led by France Telecom-Orange, is made up of 16 members from Africa and Europe. The ACE project has a design capacity of 5.12 Tbps and is supported by the new 40 Gbps wavelength division multiplexing (WDM) technology. This makes it possible to increase the capacity as required and adapt to the latest technological improvements by upgrading station equipment without any submarine cable modifications. The system also facilitates connectivity with terrestrial fibre optics cable.

The US$700 million cable project will ultimately extend over 17, 000 kilometers from Brittany in France to Cape Town in South Africa at depths close to 6,000 meters below sea level, linking Europe to Africa with high-capacity broadband connectivity. When we look at what has transpired from 1998 to date in the Gambia under President Jammeh, we have to give ourselves a pat on the back for the commendable achievements and growth in the country, with government spearheading accessibility to Internet resources as a tool for national development. It has been a tough road, sometimes frustrating but results have been achieved and will definitely be much higher this time around. In the past decade, the world has evolved rapidly into an increasingly information and technology driven society. Timely access to information is hence essential in keeping up with technology and improving the way we live and do business in the developing world. September 1998 marked an important turning point in the history of the advancement of information technology in the Gambia. In the Gambia today, under the APRC government there are a number of Internet Service Providers (ISP) licenses issued by the Ministry of Information and Communication Infrastructure. This has improved access to Internet and its related services. Internet cafes are booming and providing limited and affordable access to the internet in rural areas, hence the need for multi-purpose ICT centers.

In 2010, the Ministry of Information and Communication Infrastructure (MOICI) launched its four-year strategic plan, a new framework designed to further advance its ongoing commitment to provide The Gambia with advanced telecoms infrastructure. This process was given a further boost later on with the launched of the government's overarching Programme for Accelerated Growth and Employment (PAGE).

The Ministry encourages and promotes the use of ICT in all spheres of government service delivery processes to facilitate and sustain efficiency. For example, MOICI is responsible for implementing an e-government strategy. A wide-ranging e-government project proposal has been developed to give special consideration to the rural communities.

The Ministry is the executing agency of the UNDP-backed e-government Web Portal, a gateway to government information linking all government ministries, which became fully operational in 2011. At the same time, an e-government data center for the provision of email and web services has also been completed.

Telecommunications

The Telecommunications Act of 2009 has strengthened an enabling regulatory environment of the telecommunication sector that has witnessed the establishment of four GSM mobile operators, one fixed network operator and more than six Internet Service Providers (ISP). In August 2008, a 3G license was issued as the fourth entrant into the mobile market.

The presence of four mobile operators (Gamcel, Africell, Comium, and QCell) could not have been possible without government's continued pursuance of its liberalization and privatization policies in order to attain its vision 2020, which is aimed at making the Gambia a private sector led and knowledge based economy.

The impact of GSM in the Gambia cannot be overemphasized and is much felt in rural areas that have drastically increased mobile density. As at now, the mobile subscriber base is 570,000 equaling 38% of the population and is bound to increase. This figure including basic telephony, registers a total access to telecommunication services of 629,000 depicting 41.9% tele-density. The Gambia has only one fixed line operator, Gamtel with 59,000 subscribers and 12,000 of which are wireless end users.

Radio and Television

Cognizant of the important role of journalists and media as a whole in the promotion and protection of rights and freedoms in any society which serves as a means to ensure peace, social justice, security and the advancement of national development, the Gambia under the leadership of His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr Yahya Jammeh in the last 20 years of progressive development witnessed the proliferation of private and commercial radio stations. This amply demonstrates the government of the Gambia's commitment to social justice, mutual respect and freedom of speech. There are fourteen commercial FM radio licenses issued by the ministry of Information and Communications Infrastructure concentrated in the Greater Banjul Area, coupled with the existence of five other community radio stations across the country compare to pre-1994 Revolution when there were no more than three radio stations.

This would not have been possible without government's devotion to freedom of speech and expression, in all its forms, including the right of association, and right to speech, as far as you do not infringe the rights of others. The Gambia's first private commercial radio station was Radio Syd. At the time, it was broadcasting from a vessel when it first came to the Gambia. Two medium wave channels are utilized under the state owned Gambia Radio and Television Service (GRTS) to broadcast various local radio programs and synchronize with external foreign channels for supplementary broadcasting.

West Africa Regional Communications Infrastructure Programme (WARCIP)

This project is ushering in an infrastructural revolution in the Gambia, allowing the country to connect to the Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) submarine cable. The ACE submarine communication cable which landed in the country in September 2011 began service in July 2012, connecting a host of African countries across the West Coast of Africa from France down to South Africa in what could be one of the longest undersea connections on the continent, stretching for more than 14 000 km. The ACE project will provide high-capacity and reliable bandwidth by providing direct connectivity to the information superhighway. Following the implementation of this project, a new Public Private Partnership initiative, called the Gambia Submarine Cable Company was created to operate and manage the Gambia's Submarine cable.

ECOWAS Wide Area Network (ECOWAN) Project

The ECOWAN project is contributing to the modernization and expansion of the national telecommunications infrastructure. This project addresses critical connectivity gaps, by extending communications and Internet services, and provides a regional e-governance platform for interconnecting ECOWAS local offices, member states and institutions.

The project also includes the provision of a government-wide area network to enhance e-government connectivity service. To this end, MOICI has been gradually developing a data centre, which will eventually evolve into a National Data Centre (NDC) for the Gambia. The current facility which hosts the government email service and web portal will be expanded in order to host several e-government services for various sectors under secured cyber environment.

"Although our international bandwidth has increased significantly and all service providers have increased their bandwidth capacity, we are yet to realize the full impact of this development as the carrying capacity of GSM and Internet Service Providers remains limited. Therefore, we will continue our efforts to support the public and private GSM and Internet Service Providers to improve their carrying capacity to match the increased bandwidth," President Jammeh said, quoted in a statement he delivered at the 2014 State Opening of the National Assembly in Banjul. During that ceremony, the president said the government is also embarking on another project to upgrade the national transmission backbone under the ECOWAN project. This project contract, according to him has been signed already and construction work was expected to commence in April 2014 and to end by June 2015.

The ACE Project

In President Jammeh's 20-year presidency, the Telecommunications sector continues to be given high priority for the fact that there could be no meaningful development in today's world without proper telecommunication infrastructure. This was why government made the bold decision of investing in the Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) submarine project to ensure a faster and reliable communication to facilitate business, education, health and research. So! It is without a doubt that the Africa Coast to Europe Submarine Cable will make a huge national difference to the landscape of the overall Information Communication Technology (ITC) ecosystem not only in the Gambia but also in other West African countries where the submarine cable has or will be launched. When we look at what has transpired from 1998 to date in the Gambia, we would have cause to commend the Government of President Yahya Jammeh for the laudable achievements and growth in spearheading accessibility to Internet resources as a tool for national development. It has been a tough road and sometimes frustrating but results have been achieved and will definitely be much higher this time around. On December 19, 2012, the Africa Coast to Europe project was launched in Gambia with up to 500 international policy-makers, regulators, operators, vendors and service providers from across the world in attendance. The project will crucially facilitate communication within the sub-region and by extension contribute to the realization of the African Union (AU) Programme on Infrastructure Development in Africa (PIDA), as agreed upon by the AU Heads of States and governments in Addis Ababa Ethiopia in January 2012.

Also worthy of mentioning is that the ACE project will create additional opportunities to modernize and enhance our telecommunication infrastructure and inclusion in the global information society and acknowledge economy.

Relating this development to our context, the project fittingly complements government's vision to transform the Gambia's communications infrastructure into the state of-the-art technology. By the same token, it accords neatly with the 'Build on Broadband' initiative launched by ITU, sequel to the Connect Africa Goal One, which seeks to interconnect all African capitals and major cities with ICT broadband infrastructure and strengthen connectivity to the rest of the world in the future.

"I must emphasize that the launching of the ACE cable system in the Gambia is a welcome development that will certainly put the country at the center stage of the global communications landscape," the vice president and minister of women's affairs, Her Excellency Aja Dr Isatou Njie-Saidy said at the launching ceremony on behalf of the president.

IXP

In June 2014, the Ministry of Information and Communication Infrastructure (MOICI) under the African Union Commission (AUC) African Internet Exchange Services (AXIS) Support Project unveiled the country's first-ever Internet exchange point.

This was a project initiated in collaboration with local telecoms operators and Internet service providers, which launching ceremony was held at GAMTEL's Serrekunda Exchange premises along Kairaba Avenue, where the Serrekunda Internet Exchange Point (SIXP) is located.

The SIXP establishes an Internet exchange point that would keep Internet traffic local, thereby reducing the pressure on costly international bandwidth.

The AU Commissioner officially launched the SIXP for Energy and Infrastructure, Dr. Elham Mahmood Ahmed Ibrahim, who was in Banjul to attend the ceremony, also attended by Works minister Bala Garba Jahumpa, who is overseeing MOICI.

Jahumpa in his keynote address said national bandwidth had increased by more than 300 per cent since the commissioning of the ACE Submarine Cable in December 2012.

However, "it was still critical to establish an exchange point to minimize the burden on unnecessary international bandwidth being utilized by our local traffic, which is expensive" he said.

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